In the late 1990’s Afghanistan-born historian and novelist Tamim Ansary was asked to help produce the initial draft of a high school-level western civilization textbook. Later, after the draft was reviewed by a cacophony of educators and assorted special interest representatives, Ansary was horrified to learn that most, if not all, of the draft’s 1,400 years of Islamic history had been purged. Galvanized by that frustrating experience, Ansary has written Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, a sweeping account of a history parallel to what we in the West have long assumed to be the sole version. The final product is no ordinary history book or scholarly text. It more akin to an informal yet structured and at times even humorous monologue, or as Ansary puts it, “it’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said, ‘What’s all this about a parallel world history’ ?” Destiny Disrupted educates while it entertains. And does so wonderfully.
Starting with the birth of Islam, Ansary chronicles the 1,400 year history of the Muslim world or as he calls it, “the Middle World”; from the early Caliphates to their successor kingdoms in Arabia, Spain, Persia, India and Turkey. In his treatment of the Crusades, Ansary downplays their lasting effect on the Muslim world since the occupation of the Holy Land was short-lived and brought little lasting change the region’s social landscape, (if anything, the Crusades had a more profound effect on the Europeans by exposing them to high quality consumer goods and diverse cultures). Compared to the Crusades, the REAL invasions were those of the Mongols. Their invading hordes annihilated entire cities and plunged the Muslim world into a Dark Ages lasting centuries with lasting repercussions to the present day.
Like many historians and pundits, Ansary weighs in on the question of “what went wrong”; that is what caused the Muslim world to be eclipsed technologically, scientifically and intellectually by Europe. According to Ansary, the answers lies within the profound social and economic revolutions specific to Europe thereby helping the West unleash its full potential and giving it a huge advantage when its ships, traders and soldiers ventured forth across the globe. Needless to say, it would not be fair fight.
Lastly, according to Ansary, it is this struggle between secular modernism and Islamically-oriented traditionalism which is the cause of so much conflict within Muslim society today. However, unlike some Western pundits, Ansary discusses the details of this ongoing conflict even-handedly and without prejudice or condescension.
This is an enjoyable and fascinating book filled with countless little “I didn’t know that” bits of history that will keep any reader well entertained. While there are a few minor boo-boos, (Ansary claims the airplane was invented in 1907, while in reality the first manned flight occurred in 1903. According to Ansary, in 1982 after the PLO was driven out of Lebanon by Israel it relocated to Libya. Actually, it was Tunisia), I blame it on bad fact checking and not poor scholarship or lack of intellectual vigor. Destiny Disrupted makes a great companion text to books like Reza Aslan’s No God But God and Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad, in addition to Stewart Gordon’s When Asia Was the World and Vijay Prashad’s Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.
According to many historians the first coffee drinkers were 15th century Sufi mystics in Arabia and Yemen. If that’s the case, it think it’s only fitting a book devoted to Islamic history would take it’s inspiration from a hypothetical chat in a modern coffeehouse.